I realize the flood of information regarding approval of COVID-19 vaccines is both hopeful and overwhelming. Below you’ll find answers to some of the most frequently asked questions we’re hearing from patients regarding safety, efficacy and distribution of the recently approved Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, and the Moderna vaccine, which is likely to receive approval from the FDA shortly. Please keep in mind that the situation is fluid and what is shared now can change. Distribution is being handled by local governments. We recommend checking these websites regularly for the latest information:
When can I get my COVID-19 vaccine?
Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is being distributed to governmental agencies and hospitals in limited quantities. There will not be nearly enough vaccine for some time. Frontline healthcare workers will receive priority, followed by residents and staff at long-term care facilities, workers in essential and critical industries including emergency services personnel, people at high risk for severe COVID-19 illness due to underlying medical conditions, and people ages 65 years and older. As more vaccine becomes available, and if other vaccines are approved with less difficult storage requirements, more vaccination providers will come online, and that might start to include doctors’ offices. We do not know when or if we will be able to get the vaccine, but will update you as the rollout continues to evolve. The criteria for eligibility is still being worked out by the CDC.
I am a high-risk patient. Is there a waitlist I can join to get my vaccine faster?
After the initial phase of vaccinations, people aged 65 and older or younger than 65 with chronic underlying medical conditions will be a candidate for the vaccine. I encourage everyone to be vaccinated and I plan to get the vaccine myself as soon as it is offered to me. Please know that I have no way of getting you a vaccine sooner or prioritizing patients. The prioritization scheme the CDC recommends helps all of us by making sure we can receive medical care in the hospital if we need to, with enough doctors, nurses, and support staff. Protecting nursing home residents and staff makes sense because it saves the most lives.
Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe?
Experience with the Pfizer vaccine is limited, but enough for the CDC to approve it for use. It is not a live virus, so you cannot catch COVID-19 from it. There have been a few significant allergic reactions, primarily in individuals with a history of serious allergic reactions in the past. Most common side effects experienced were pain, redness, or swelling at the injection site, fever, fatigue, headache, or muscle and joint pain. It is advised not to plan to work the day after the immunization. No other major safety events were noted but may become apparent as more people are immunized. These side effects may be more prominent than what is experienced after a flu shot, but they are not dangerous and indicate the vaccine is activating the body’s immune response.
How do these vaccines work?
These vaccines use mRNA to direct our cells to make a harmless piece of the “spike protein” found on the surface of the coronavirus. This triggers an immune response, producing protective antibodies to fight off the virus if it should enter our bodies. For additional information on how these vaccines were developed, you may want to read this recently published interview with vaccine expert Dr. Paul Offit.
Is the vaccine effective, and for how long?
Preliminary reports from Pfizer and Moderna indicate their vaccines are highly effective but it is not yet known for how long. The vaccine has been shown to start working within 10-14 days of receiving the first dose, but you are considered fully immunized one to two weeks after receiving the second dose. Studies have measured antibodies that persist for at least several months after vaccination, but this is not the only way disease is prevented. Studies are ongoing to determine how long these vaccines provide protection.
How many vaccine doses do I need and will it need to be repeated every year, like the flu shot?
The first vaccines will require two doses separated by at least three or four weeks depending upon which vaccine you receive. At this time, it is not known if follow-up vaccinations will be required for COVID-19, as they are for influenza. Studies are in progress to answer this question.
Once I am vaccinated, can I still spread COVID-19 to others?
We know the vaccine protects against symptomatic and severe disease with COVID-19. It is not yet known whether it is possible for someone who has been vaccinated to still acquire and spread COVID-19 to others. That is why it will remain essential to continue to wear a mask, avoid crowds, practice physical distancing, and wash your hands until broad public immunity is achieved.
If I have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past, should I get the vaccine?
Yes, you should be vaccinated even if you previously had COVID-19 and have recovered. It’s unclear how long immunity lasts after the COVID-19 infection and it may vary by individual.
Can I take the vaccine if I have a weakened immune system as a result of receiving chemotherapy or taking immunosuppressive medication?
To date, no problems have been seen to suggest that immunosuppressed individuals should not take the vaccine.
I will update you with website postings as further vaccine information becomes available. I am grateful for the opportunity to guide, advise and care for my patients during this challenging period, and look forward to better times just ahead. Please continue to wear masks, social distance and avoid group gatherings.
Stay safe and well,
Scott Palmer, MD